Monday, September 21, 2009

Article in "Wijsgerig Perspectief"

The Dutch popular philosophical journal Wijsgerig Perspectief (in the person of guest-editor Olga Crapels) asked me to write an article for an issue on survival, namely, an article about survival in roleplaying games. I was happy to oblige, and wrote an article called Een spel met de dood, which would translate as A game with death.

Normally, you would have to pay a stiff 13 euros to obtain a copy of the magazine, but it appears that the publisher has decided to put my article up at the website as the free teaser. So you can get it by clicking this link. Absolutely no guarantees that it will stay online!

Of course, you'll still have to be able to read Dutch in order to understand it. For those who don't read Dutch, I will give a very short summary. Stripped to its bare essentials, the argument is:
  • The experience of the fight for survival has disappeared almost completely from contemporary Western life. But we still want to experience it vicariously or as an illusion. (Think of watching Die Hard or bungee jumping.)
  • Most art (including Die Hard) is not very good at giving us the experience of survival, since it follows the convention of the novel, which is that the death of the protagonist, if it takes place, must be meaningful. (Walter Benjamin.) But when we fight to survive, we fight against a meaningless death.
  • Early RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons were uniquely suited for the purpose of representing survival, since they combined meaningful characters and meaningless death, and let the player struggle against this death.
  • But the reality of meaningless and irreversible death worked against the basic mechanic of amassing treasure and going level up.
  • Solution: decrease the chance of death, make death reversible, and so on. (Think World of Warcraft, were death equals a small loss of time, but nothing else.) Thus, the experience of survival was once again taken away.
  • Planescape: Torment manages to put death in the centre again, but... by adopting the conventions of the novel.
  • If we wish to experience the fight for survival, we must create RPGs that combine the meaningless deaths of early D&D with rules that do not work against this. (And we must perhaps wish for this experience, if only because it will allow us to understand better all those people in the world who are still confronted with the struggle for survival.)
If you would prefer to hear me speak about this topic (in Dutch), you can come to Discovery 2009, a festival in Amsterdam next friday the 25th. I'll speak about my article for exactly 400 seconds!

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